Whether you work out because it makes you feel good or it helps you look a certain way, you probably already know that growing muscle is not as easy as it sounds. More than a straightforward correlation (more squats, bigger glutes), getting those gains is like solving a complicated equation with a wide array of variables that include the exercises you do, what you eat, and how much you rest.
Without understanding the role each of these elements plays, you’ll likely spend hours lifting every day, but your progress will only go so far. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a muscle math genius to buff up, and winter is the perfect time to start.
How your body builds muscle
When you work out your biceps, the strain of the movement causes micro-tears. This means that at a microscopic level, the fibers that make up the muscle in your arms get damaged or cut altogether.
When your body has everything it needs to heal, it overcorrects by growing new tissue on top of the damaged one. This helps better prepare your muscles for exertion and prevent new micro-tears from happening in the future. It is through the repetition of this cycle—straining, repairing—that muscles grow in size and strength.
It’s a pretty simple process, but there are several things that go into boosting it and making it more efficient.
The essential elements of getting stronger
There are four main elements you need to keep an eye on when it comes to growing your muscles. Knowing how they interact will help you stay healthy and see results in time for spring.
Consistency is key
You absolutely will not make progress bulking up without consistent effort. Muscles only increase in size and strength by going through the cycle of experiencing and healing micro-tears over and over again.
Consistency builds with discipline over time. But sometimes that’s not enough, so you’ll need to come up with some extra motivation to get moving.
When I was starting my fitness journey, involving a friend really helped me stay on track. My roommate and I got a treadmill and the rule was that whenever one of us ran the other had to follow suit. Within a few months, this forced consistency pushed me from wheezing my way through a mere two to three minutes of painful jogging to effortlessly running past the mile mark.
Wield those weights right
Only lifting often and heavily will result in muscle growth. But if you don’t know how heavy is heavy enough, there are two ways to figure it out.
Start by pushing to failure, which is fitness jargon for lifting to the point where you can no longer do another repetition without decreasing weight. But as you get stronger, you’ll find that getting to this point using the same size weights will require you to do more and more reps. This is why you’ll need to gradually increase the amount of weight you lift over time.
[Related: Muscle stiffness can be an athletic superpower]
“Going through the motions won’t build muscle like actually pushing and getting to a few reps short of failure,” says Jim Bathurst, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, and the head of fitness at Nerd Fitness.
To get more gains, he recommends prioritizing workouts that target multiple muscle groups at a time, also known as compound exercises. These include standards like bench presses, deadlifts, pull-ups, squats, overhead presses, and rows. In fact, by doing these six exercises you’ll be working out every major muscle group in your body.
But whatever movements make it into your routine, Jim recommends you complete each one with proper form: “This can help minimize injuries and increase the amount of work you put on the muscles.”
Mastering your form will take knowledge and practice. Start by doing your research—there are several apps and online videos you can check out to get a better understanding of the correct form for each exercise. You can then apply what you’ve learned by exercising in front of a mirror or filming yourself and reviewing your movements as you go. If you still have questions, it might be time to ask an expert. A coach or trainer will give you dedicated attention and correct your form as necessary. They’ll even be able to adapt certain exercises to accommodate previous injuries or level of expertise.
Eating right is a crucial part of your routine
Once you’ve caused all the aforementioned micro-tears via lifting, you’ll need to let them heal. But your muscles can’t repair themselves and grow if you’re not fueling yourself properly—they require enough calories and proteins to do the job.
“Unlike fat reduction, the development of lean muscle tissue requires energy as you are building the body and need material to do so,” says Michael S. Parker, a certified fitness nutrition specialist, and founder of Forge Fitness. “Naturally, this material is in the form of nutritional components and found in our food.”
When it comes to how much food you’ll need to eat daily to get those gains, Parker explains that everyone is different, but a good rule of thumb is meeting your maintenance energy level and then surpassing it. This means eating enough calories a day to offset the ones you’re burning by exercising and just staying alive, and then some. This extra energy is called caloric surplus, and it’s the additional oomph your body needs to build new muscle. While everyone’s body is unique, generally speaking, you don’t need much of a surplus to fuel growth—between 300 and 500 extra calories a day will do it. But this only applies if you’re working out hard, lifting to failure around three to four times a week.
If you don’t know what your maintenance level is, there are a number of online calculators that can help you with that. These tools take into account factors like your age, weight, height, and typical daily activity levels to provide a fairly accurate picture of your caloric needs. You can also use an app like MyFitnessPal, which is intuitive and offers a vast library of foods so that you don’t have to enter each one manually.
Apps can also provide an estimate of how many calories you burn during your workouts, but if you want a clearer picture, you can use a fitness tracker. These gadgets vary greatly in terms of accuracy, but in my experience, the Garmin Venu 2 Plus delivers outstanding results compared to products from companies like Fitbit or Whoop. This gadget also tracks a wide range of activities, including strength training, cycling, and swimming.
But it’s not just a matter of calories in and calories out. When it comes to food and muscle growth, quality matters just as much as quantity.
“You will need to ensure you have a sufficient and balanced ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to ensure maximal absorption and distribution of nutritional building components,” Michael says.
Protein is essential for building muscle as it helps with cell replication, he explains. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are a source of energy and aid your mind and body to perform at optimal levels.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that in most people, muscle growth or maintenance requires a daily intake of 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you should be eating 105 grams of protein per day to build muscle. In food terms, that translates into three eggs, two pieces of bacon, a cup of Greek yogurt, one chicken breast, and a protein bar.
And don’t forget about getting some fat in. Prioritize clean dietary fats such as monounsaturated (think avocados, peanuts, and almonds), and polyunsaturated (fish, sunflower seeds, walnuts), but also add a small amount of saturated fat (butter, coconut oil, cheese, bacon).
Get plenty of rest
You don’t get stronger in the gym—you do it in bed. When you sleep, your muscles get the chance to recover by healing micro-tears. You need to get a full night’s sleep on a consistent basis, with research indicating that seven to eight hours is the sweet spot for muscle growth.
[Related: What actually works for muscle recovery—and what doesn’t]
But on top of getting some solid rest, you’ll also need to relax. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is catabolic, meaning that it hinders your body’s ability to synthesize proteins, directly disrupting muscle growth.
Supplement with caution
You’ll see a lot of products promising to boost muscle growth, burn fat, or increase performance—but supplements are not bottled miracles.
“[Supplements] will not take the place of the basics like quality workouts, proper nutrition, and quality sleep,” Jim says. “If you are slacking in your workouts, failing to consistently eat enough calories and protein, or staying up late and getting terrible sleep, supplements will not be a magic fix.”
There are a few supplements that are safe, affordable, and scientifically proven to help your progress. But if you have any medical conditions, talk to your doctor before you make any major dietary changes.
Michael explains that protein supplements can help you get those gains, but they’re unnecessary if you’re already getting what you need from food. Creatine is another popular supplement among those looking to buff up and has the added bonus of being inexpensive. It’s not essential to muscle growth, but if you want to get a little boost, research has found that creatine is safe, and when properly used, it can help with rapid muscle gains by improving the quality of your workouts.
“Creatine is one of the most researched dietary supplements out there [and it] helps replenish energy when an individual is fatigued,” Michael explains.
[Related: There are only two supplements proven to help you build muscle]
Consuming caffeine-based pre-workout supplements can also boost gym performance by increasing your energy and focus.
“Caffeine and other natural stimulants can help you push harder during workouts, but should be used as little as possible,” Jim explains. Take too much or too late in the day, and it can interfere with your sleep, which as we mentioned above, is counterproductive.
People should be careful with other non-caffeine-based pre-workout supplements, Michael warns, as there’s no science backing up their safety and efficacy, and they may even form addiction patterns.
“Safety of supplementation has improved quite a bit over the last 15 to 20 years,” he says. “However, it is still prudent to exercise caution when supplementing.”
As you progress, you’ll find plenty of ways to fine-tune your routine. But no matter what stage of your fitness journey you are in, the fundamentals will still be the same: consistent and vigorous workouts, proper diet, and the always necessary recovery afforded by good sleep and relaxation.
Rinse (because you never want to be the smelly person at the gym), and repeat.